I first came across Forough Farrokhzad via Chris Marker’s comments about her:
Brave, she didn’t look for alibis or defences. As the professional of pain, she knew their desires and their repugnance for the world. As the experts of justice, she felt the need to fight without ever betraying her own profound inspiration. (Filippini, 2006)
Farrokhzad was one of the foremost artists in pre-revolutionary Iran. Her only film, The House is Black (Farrokhzad, 1963) is a short documentary filmed at a leper colony in the Iranian city of Tabriz. Farrokhzad speaks her reasons for making this film at its beginning:
There is no shortness of ugliness in the world.
If man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more.
But man is a problem solver.
On this screen will appear an image of ugliness….a vision of pain no caring human being should ignore.
To wipe out this ugliness and to relieve the victims…is the motive of this film and the hope of its makers. (Farrokhzad, 1963)
These words are spoken over a black screen, which then cuts to the image of a woman looking at herself in a mirror. We can see her face only in reflection, yet the effects of the leprosy are undeniable. Farrokhzad holds this shot as the woman observes herself in the mirror, she seems to be silently asking us to look at ourselves and ask how we can ignore the suffering of these people.
The House is Black is the first pre-Isalamic Revolution Iranian film that I’ve watched. It’s also the first Iranian documentary that I’ve watched, even though many fictional Iranian films seem to draw heavily from a documentary tradition to blur the lines between reality and fiction. I’ve wondered if this comes from a desire to document reality in a country which experiences such strong censorship (Issa, 2001) or whether it’s emerged for the more pragmatic reasons of working in a country where professional actors are comparatively scarce.
I found The House is Black particularly interesting, because it approaches that same line between fact and fiction, but from the other side. Instead of making a narrative documentary Farrokhzad uses her talents as a poet to make a film that is suffused with atmosphere and emotion, a kind of cinematic poem. She uses rhythm and repetition to create this poetry, both in the content of her shots and the way that they’re cut together. The film picks out images and sounds of dancing, chanting, prayer and children playing, all of which suggest a sense of rhythm and pattern. She edits these shots together cutting back to the same shots again and again, creating a visual metre of juxtaposed images. These juxtapositions are a prime example of montage and the theory of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis (Barry, 1997 p203-204).
Much of Farrokhzad’s direction and editing is centered on children and seems to reference how they repeat the patterns of their forebears; we see shots of a child clutching her baby doll, a mother nursing her baby, and children learning the knowledge of their elders in the classroom. This creates a sense of a never ending cycle, a cycle of children replacing their parents in the colony, a cycle which Farrokhzad wants to break.
Similar to other Iranian films, The House is Black uses non-place to confront the ills of Iranian society, aspects of their nation that the ruling regime would like to hide. And in the non-place of the colony live these lepers, who are non-people in the eyes of many.
Farrokhzad tries to fight the prejudice that these lepers face, not by presenting a narrative portrait of their lives, but simply by humanising them. She presents to the audience a group of people who have long represented the terrifying spectre of the other, but shows them to be being just as worthy of our compassion as anybody else. They play, dance, sing and fight; they love and are loved in return.
By trying to fight the cultural fear and ostracism of her subjects, Farrokhzad attacks the wider fear of the other which existed (and still exists) in Iranian society. Censorship and oppression weren’t novel to post-revolution Iran (Dönmez-Colin, 2006 p74).
Barry, A. (1997) Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication, New York: State University of New York Press
Dönmez-Colin, G., (2006) Cinema of the Other: A Personal Journey with Film-makers from the Middle East and Central Asia, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Farrokhzad, F., (1963) The House is Black, Studio Golestan
Filippini, B., (2006) Forough Farrokhzad, Asiatica Film Mediale, Available from: http://www.asiatica.international/old/2006/uk/farrokhzad.html [Accessed on 5 February 2016]
Issa, R., (2001) Post revolution, art’s revelation, Times Higher Education, Available from: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/158808.article [Accessed on 5 February 2016]